With ‘staycation’ summer looming, CT venues still scrambling for help

As Connecticut families look ahead to a summer of amusements closer to home, many favorite venues are still scrambling to fill jobs ranging from counter help and wait staff to lifeguards at beaches and pools.

In the second week of June, Connecticut hospitality and entertainment employers put out 700 new job ads on websites tracked by The Conference Board, a 70 percent increase from the prior week.

Connecticut restaurants averaged just over 6,000 additional jobs each summer above their normal staffing in the years prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to estimates by the National Restaurant Association. The 5.5 percent bump in staffing was the most modest of any Northeast state, with Connecticut having no tourist magnet to rival New York City, the Jersey Shore or Cape Cod in Massachusetts among other New England destinations.

But with prices super-heated for gas and hotel rooms, some experts have speculated that Americans will be far less likely to take getaways that are not already locked in place. That could keep employer demand for help high in Connecticut, as families spend some of the money on local venues and eateries.

Late last month, the commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection addressed DECD’s needs for people to staff state parks, including lifeguards who were in short supply last summer. That has spilled over into 2022, with Sherwood Island State Park in Westport, Silver Sands State Park in Milford and Squantz Pond State Park in New Fairfield among still looking to fill slots as of Friday.

“We’re focused on recruiting so we can avoid having to curtail any services,” said DEEP Commissioner Katie Dykes, speaking in late May at Hammonasset Beach State Park in Madison. “I don’t think this is unique to our state park system.”

As of Friday, Lake Compounce was still short about two of every five positions it needs to fill for peak summer season, according to Lynsey Winters, a spokesperson for the amusement park owned by Palace Entertainment. In past years, the park has operated with between 1,100 and 1,200 workers, the majority college students who work between three and four days a week, with many shifts lasting six to eight hours.

Lake Compounce has raised its hourly wage for both this summer and last, according to spokesperson Lynsey Winters who has been filling in herself as needed for jobs where Lake Compounce is still looking to hire. Palace Entertainment has been dangling extras for candidates like seasonal passes for workers to share with family and friends, and free food for those working concessions.

The park opened on a limited schedule at the end of April, and adopted full summer hours on Thursday.

“We actually have a good amount of people who have applied, so now it’s just a matter of really getting them through our application process and getting them trained,” Winters said.

With lifeguard candidates not showing up in the same numbers last year as previously, Lake Compounce began offering to pick up the cost for people to get certified to ensure its popular water park had adequate staffing. It has rolled the freebie into this year as well.

“It seems to help a lot,” Winters said. “People come to Lake Compounce to cool off and really spend the day in the water park, on those hot days.”

In Norwalk, Oak Hills Park Golf Course brings in about 30 seasonal employees each year, according to Paul Alexander, course superintendent. Alexander said he had to raise rates slightly, while throwing in perks like discounted golf rounds, free lessons and even clubs. The seasonal workforce includes youth ages 16 to 22, and retirees many of whom return season after season.

As one extra concession this year, Alexander said he worked to line up freebies at other area courses as an extra inducement to dangle for those applying for jobs at Oak Hills Park.

“Haven’t really had a problem, for whatever reason,” Alexander said. “We don’t even pay people like what they would get at McDonald’s, Chick-fil-A, Walmart and all that, so it’s hard to get people in here — but they do get to play golf.”

Alex.Soule@scni.com; 203-842-2545; @casoulman